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When you’re looking for an inexpensive getaway, you can’t beat the great outdoors. Did you know that Uncle Sam offers free national park admissions for active-duty military personnel?
The continental U.S. is dotted with numerous beautiful places to hike, picnic, camp, fish, bicycle… Whether you’re vacationing with family, grabbing a weekend getaway as a couple or looking for a little time alone to reflect, there’s something for you. They’re usually with a drive from most duty stations, but there’s always Space-A if you’d need to fly to get the ones that interest you most.
Even in our phone-obsessed, technology-tethered era, there’s still a lot to be said for the eye-catching colors of peak fall foliage, the majestic snows of winter, the new blooms of spring and—of course—summer’s greenery. That’s why most wallpaper sites offer extensive nature sections. There’s still nothing like the positive sensory overload of singing birds, the sound of rustling pines, a breeze over your skin and the sights of a real-life forest, though. Even with today’s top-of-the-line augmented reality (AR) gear, imitations just can’t compete.
Parents should also note that when our parents spoke of getting out to breathe the fresh air, they knew what they were talking about. It turns out that regular exposure to the out-of-doors has proven beneficial effects on children as they are developing. We can’t make vitamin D without exposure to sunlight (even though yes: too much sunlight can cause cancer). Unstructured play time in natural environments is also good for the growth of executive function, which is the cognitive category under which problem-solving and other forms of creativity fall under.
We can’t seal them in bubble wrap for life. Risk-taking is also a facet of development that the outdoors all but screams for. None of us wants to have to rush Junior to the ER, but he or she needs to test their wings in a non-central-air-conditioned environment once in a while (and it’s possible to keep an eye on them without being obvious about it). Real-life challenges will be much less daunting for adults who’ve explored their strengths and weaknesses as children.
It’s one thing to appreciate the appealing woodland textures of a video game, but it’s another entirely to get out there for ourselves like we’re designed to. We’re not supposed to operate indoors 24/7. At its very best, life inside leads to dried-out skin and other maladies regular trips outside can prevent. Some reports even suggest that problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), diminished learning abilities, lowered creativity, and poor mental and emotional health can result from never going outside.
Nobody ever dies uttering, “if only I’d stared more at those cubicle walls” or “all those chances to snore in front of the TV—wasted!”
We’re all here a very short time (in the grander span of things). If we don’t get out and see the wild while we can, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when we’re too old, physically to do it.
Annual passes are available here at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) store. For the general public, they’re sold for $80 as America the Beautiful passes, but for active-duty military personnel and dependents, volunteers (who’ve served 250 hours within the current year) and 4th graders, they’re free! Most members of the U.S. Reserves and National Guard qualify, as well. You just have to present proper identification like a Common Access Card, Uniformed Services ID Card, or DoD Form 1173 card to get yours. They are obtained in-person from federal recreation sites that charge entrance or standard amenity fees.
To be specific, qualified free annual pass applicants include current members of the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard (and their dependents, provided that they have a current DD Form 1173 ID). U.S. Military Cadets and U.S. Active Reservists (even if not presently deployed) are also eligible. You guys are at the cool kids’ table—because you deserve to be.
Sorry foreign military members (even if you’re stationed in the U.S. and have a CAC card), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees, Public Health Service (PHS) members, Inactive U.S. Reservists, Civilian military contractors, Civilian military employees, and U.S. military retirees: it’s nothing personal, but you’re not included on this one. Veterans, unfortunately, you don’t qualify either, but if you are 62 or older, you are eligible for a SeniorPass. If you have a permanent disability, you probably also qualify for an AccessPass (which’s free for a lifetime).
The Annual Military Passcovers entrance into Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service sites that charge entrance fees (and amenity fees) at Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation sites. It will also admit you and any accompanying passengers in a private (non-commercial) vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas. At sites that charge an entrance fee per person, you and up to an additional three adults are good to go.
At Federal recreation sites that don’t have an entrance station(s), you need to display your pass or show proof of pass ownership to compliance officers. This is done one of two ways: The first is with a hanging version of your pass, which can either be displayed on your rearview mirror (using a free hangtag) or on your dashboard with the signature side visible. If you own an open-topped vehicle (like a jeep or motorcycle), the second way’s probably best. This just means obtaining a free decal to attach to your vehicle for proof of payment at sites that don’t have a staffed entrance station.
If you ride a bicycle onto a federal recreation site that charges an entrance fee, generally speaking, you’re covered there: a pass owner and up to three other bicyclists can enter for free. It’s a good idea to do your homework before you roll out, though. We’d check with the recreation site that you plan to visit since there can be differences in the way that a pass is honored between different sites.
The down side is that if you’ve already paid for an annual pass—and you qualify—but you didn’t know that you could get one for free until you read this, that money’s done went: Refunds aren’t issued. Ditto if you get to a site, realize you’ve forgotten your pass and wind up paying an entrance or use fee. Try not to leave yours behind. It’s also worth noting that not all public lands sites issue passes (many, but not 100%). It’s a good idea to read the complete listing of sites that issue and accept the interagency Military Annual Pass, in a PDF file here.
The Pass doesn’t cover expanded amenity fees for things like camping, boat launching, parking, special tours, special permits or ferries. Some facilities and activities on federal recreation lands are managed by private concessionaires. These companies charge for their services as any civilian business does, so the pass doesn’t apply toward their services. If you go in waving yours and demanding a corn dog, we never knew you.
The big Ys, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, should both be high on your gotta’-see list. Established on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone stretches from Idaho to Montana to Wyoming. Its massive size seems appropriate for the firstborn among America’s national parks. The geysers, including Old Faithful, have sometimes been viewable on Webcams, but that’s nothing like seeing eruptions happen live and in-person. If you’ve ever wanted to see what the U.S. looked like before the Industrial Revolution, wildlife included, this is a great place to look at. Rumor has it that Yogi Bear’s animated home park, “Jellystone,” received more than a little inspiration for its appearance from the spectacular landscapes of Yellowstone.
Animal show/channel fans won’t want to miss the once-in-a-lifetime excitement of hearing real wolves howl. They’re most active at dawn and dusk. A 2015 estimate says that there were over 528 wolves within the area at that time and their home range within the park is 185–310 square miles (300– 500 km2). They typically range from 4 to 6 feet from their noses to their tail tips, but don’t worry: even the big ones aren’t bad. They’re definitely not puppies to be fed or petted, but their primary prey is hooved animals. About 90% of their winter diet is elk and in summer they mostly eat more deer and smaller mammals.
Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, mountains and a certain rootin’ tootin’ cartoon character whose name derives from it. You can find grand meadows, deep valleys, a vast wilderness area, ancient giant sequoias, and a lot more within its nearly 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864, it offers RV campsites (though no hookups of any kind—presumably to preserve the environment and visitor immersion), group campsites and even horse campsites. Camping spots have to be reserved in advance and reservations are first-come-first-served, so we definitely recommend booking as far ahead of time as you can.
If more of a Pacific island environment sounds better, Hawaii is home to some wondrous natural national treasures. Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, for instance, is a 175-mile corridor and trail network of cultural and historical significance established in 2000. It traverses hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites and over 200 a hupua’a (traditional land divisions). Hilo is home to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which protects some of the most unique biological, geological, and cultural landscapes in the world. Its borders extend from sea level to the summit of Mauna Loa (13,677 feet) and encompass the summit of Kilauea (4,091 feet), too. Mauna Loa and Kilauea are two of the world’s most active volcanoes.
We’re only scratching the surface here in terms of what your country has to offer in terms of striking natural beauty. That’s putting it pretty mildly. There are many more places that belong on this list every bit as much, but we simply didn’t have time and space to include details on them all.
When in doubt, contact a site directly if you have any questions about pass acceptance and fees. The Forest Service (whose site is here), the National Park Service (whose site is here), the Fish and Wildlife Service (whose site is here), the BureauofLandManagement (whose site is here), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (whose site is here), and the Bureau of Reclamation (whose site is here) honor the Annual Pass at sites where Entrance or Standard Amenity Fee(s) are charged.
There are parks and campgrounds nationwide that show their appreciation for military personnel by offering two complimentary nights’ stays. Together they’re a part of Tents for Troops, a pay-it-forward program that allows RV parks, campgrounds, RV manufactures, RV dealers, industry associations, industry suppliers, and media outlets to show their gratitude. Some parks may offer RV units or park models for military guests, as well.
Another patriotic, military-friendly site campers should check out is Jellystone Parks (the Website for a chain of real-life campgrounds named after Yogi’s cartoon home). Each place is individually owned, but the cooler ones (who’ll give you discounts) are here. Many of them host “Hero Weekends” with special activities and offers to military and first-responders.
You may not think “camping” when you hear the word “Disney,” but their Armed Forces Salute program offers deals on park tickets and up to 40% off stays at their Resorts. Most people don’t realize, though that Disney’s camping grounds are included in the deal. Disney’s Fort Wilderness in Florida offers 750 acres of pine and cypress forest with deer, rabbits, ducks, and armadillos roaming the area.
For deals on everything from fuel to roadside assistance, insurance, food, and much more, check out the GoodSam Club. They make it possible for campers and RV enthusiasts to save money at over 2000 different locations around the U.S. Veterans and active-duty military personnel can receive a free membership (that normally costs $27-$60), too.
If you have to fly to the park or campground of choice, have you considered chartering a private plane? We know: You’re thinking, “That’s for rich people! I don’t have that kind of mon-…” but just wait (because here’s where it gets cool): All you need is a group of travelers to split the fee with. They can be friends, people from your unit, neighbors, business associates… as long as they aren’t folk you’d mind being stuck in a small aircraft with, you’ll be good to go. As long as you’ve agreed about the day/time to be back for the return flight, everybody can go in a different direction once you’ve landed.
We’re not knocking Space-A or regular commercial flights, but let’s be honest: there’s just no comparing those means of air travel with flying in this kind of style and comfort. If you’re all military/vets, sometimes you might even get a discount on the whole thing (so it can’t hurt to ask, anyway).
When you get to the park, please remember that the best philosophy is to “take nothing but pictures and leave only footprints behind.” This is the decent thing to do for the sake of visitors who’ll come after you—but it can genuinely save the lives of local wildlife, too: Critters like bears (or even large raccoons) that get overly used to handouts or finding careless trash can become beggars, nuisances or worse. The least behaved (or among bears, the most intimidating-looking, even if they’re generally harmless) often have to be shot.
Let’s show our state parks some love before we wrap up, too: many of them offer natural wonders much closer to home. With appreciation for places as famous as Death Valley, sometimes you just don’t have the time for or interest in a weeklong excursion. We’ve been there and done that, which’s why we’re pointing out the fact that many, many state parks within a day’s driving distance of a given duty station offer discounts for active-duty military personnel and veterans who bring their ID.
Everywhere from Alaska to Florida and Maine to Hawaii has a surprising amount of freaking gorgeous state parks. They encompass more than 18 million acres and whether you’re a hobby fisherman, a skier, or just somebody wanting to find a quiet place to enjoy nature, there’s probably a state park that offers your perfect, memorable day off. Most state parks offer their own day and annual passes, as well as licenses for hunting, fishing, and boating.
Some may require special passes depending on the activities that you plan on doing there, like primitive camping or RV stays. That’s not tough to research ahead of time, though. Florida, for example, has over 150 state parks from which to take your pick. They include beaches and trails including the Tallahassee-St.MarksHistoricRailroadTrail, which’s great for biking, hiking and horseback riding. Active duty military, National Guard, reservists and veterans all get a 25% discount off of all Florida state parks’ entrance fees.
For generations, life in Maryland has encompassed the ocean. Multiple Maryland state parks offer a chance to experience the rich marine wildlife and restful sea views, including Janes Island State Park, where visitors can crab and fish to their heart’s content. If you present a valid military ID all Maryland state park daily fees are waived.
If you’d like fewer waves and more peaches, Georgia’s state parks include Fort Yargo, which has a 260-acre lake, multiple RV sites, and lakefront yurts. Active duty and retired military who are also Georgia residents can get a 25% discount off of the daily or annual parks pass. You’ll just need your current military or retiree ID when you make your purchase.
For more information to plan with, a directory of state parks around the continental U.S. can be seen here.